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Pearl's Picks for October 2009

The Night Inspector: A Novel - by Frederick Busch
Frederick Busch's novel The Night Inspector isn't nearly as well known as it should be. (In fact, I fear that Busch himself is known to a relatively small group of readers.) The Night Inspector will please fans of historical fiction, those who simply love good writing, and anyone interested in the life and times of Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick and other works. The novel takes place mainly in Manhattan, just after the end of the War Between the States. The main character, Will Bartholomew, spent his army years as a Union sharpshooter, until the day a bullet from an enemy's gun horribly disfigured him. Because most of his face was shot away, Bartholomew now wears a papier-mâché mask at all times. Along with Herman Melville, now working as a customs inspector with his writing career apparently at an end, and Jessie, a beautiful Creole prostitute, Bartholomew concocts a plan to rescue a group of black children who are still being held by their owners, despite the abolishment of slavery. Busch has captured in vivid, evocative prose New York of the late 1860s, with its chasms between social classes, its casual cruelties, and its myriad of pleasures and dangers. At the same time, the flashbacks describing Bartholomew's experiences during the Civil War are graphic enough to give most readers nightmares. Sadly, Frederick Busch died when he was only 65; the literary world lost a great teacher and a productive, imaginative writer. If you've never read anything by him, drop everything and start now. Two of my favorite books of his are Girls and Harry and Catherine, but Don't Tell Anyone is an amazing collection of short stories. In fact, except for Busch's Closing Arguments, a novel which somewhat freaked me out, I can honestly recommend without reservation everything that Busch wrote.

The Manual of Detection - by Jedediah Berry
Jedediah Berry's The Manual of Detection is a prime example of one of those peculiar and intriguing novels that occasionally come across my desk. It's the sort of fiction that is really impossible to characterize with any accuracy. Somehow, Berry's novel is neither this nor that: the plot is not straightforward; the setting is surreal yet oddly familiar, the characters are types (detective, girl Friday, villain) but so individualized that they're difficult to forget. When you're talking about books like Berry's, you find yourself mostly resorting to making comparisons with better-known titles and authors. It's also true that with books that push against the boundaries of any particular genre (be it literary fiction, fantasy, or mysteries), readers tend to either love them or hate them. I certainly don't love them all, but I sure enjoyed this one, enormously. Berry's novel is an amalgam of all of the above--literary fiction, fantasy, and mystery; its pages echo with tributes to the writing of Borges, of Calvino, of Kafka, and of some of Paul Auster's works. And yet, for all it may resemble, The Manual of Detection is entirely original. In an unknown, somewhat eerie city, in a building known only (and ominously) as The Agency, a finicky, committed-to-following-his-daily-routine clerk named Charles Unwin works for a famous detective named Sivart, writing up Sivart's cases from the notes he's been given. Then one day everything is thrown into disarray--Watcher Lamech, Sivart's boss, is murdered, Sivart has disappeared, and Unwin is unwillingly promoted to detective from his lowly position as a clerk (a job he looks forward to every day). The only way he can get his beloved clerkship back is to find Sivart, and while trying to do so, Unwin uncovers the existence of a dastardly plot to take over the world by an organization bent on infiltrating people's dreams. Can a simple clerk find his famous boss, prevent the worst from taking place, and retain his integrity and what sanity he has? Into a mix that includes a cast of truly evil thugs, an attractive assistant with more than assisting on her mind, a puzzling woman in a plaid coat, and a ventriloquist who's up to no good (among other one-of-a-kind characters), there's also a carnival that no longer travels and many thousands of stolen alarm clocks. Try The Manual of Detection. It's thoroughly fun and a bit mind-blowing.

The Book of William: How Shakespeare's First Folio Conquered the World - by Paul Collins
It's only a slight exaggeration for me to say that I am such a fan of Paul Collins' books that if he happened to write one about--say--the history of the Los Angeles, California, Yellow Pages, I'd immediately request it from my neighborhood library and probably spend the next few days doing nothing but reading it. That is a somewhat roundabout way of saying that since I've thoroughly enjoyed everything that Collins has ever written, I'd follow him--literarily--everywhere. I am happy to report that his newest offering is another must read: perfect for history buffs, Shakespeare fans, and anyone who enjoys learning--painlessly--about a slightly abstruse topic. The Book of William: How Shakespeare's First Folio Conquered the World explores the fate of the collection of the Bard of Avon's plays that was assembled and edited after his death by his fellow actors and friends John Heminge and Henry Condell. In describing the peregrinations of this collection of plays over the next 400 years, Collins introduces us to a wide assemblage of folks whose lives and interests, as readers, writers, or publishers, had an impact on the world of Shakespeareana. These include fellow writer Ben Jonson, various editors and Shakespeare scholars, Samuel Johnson (who worked on an edition of the plays), poet Alexander Pope, and Henry Clay Folger, the one-time president of Standard Oil of New York and great amasser of everything Shakespeare, who, along with his wife, founded the Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. that bears his name. With wit and good will, not to mention an unabashed enthusiasm for his topic, Collins helps us understand the importance to the world of the First Folio, how publishing has changed (and not) since the 16th century, and what's known about the fate of the approximately 1,000 copies that were originally printed of Heminge and Condell's manuscript. This is history the way you wish it were always written.

He Who Fears the Wolf - by Karin Fossum
One of the trends we've been seeing over the last few years is translations into English of mysteries by Scandinavian writers. One of the best, and--sadly--least well known, is Norwegian Karin Fossum. In He Who Fears the Wolf, Fossum brings back policeman Konrad Sejer, first introduced to American readers in Don't Look Back. When an elderly woman is found murdered in her secluded house in the Norwegian countryside, the only suspect is a schizophrenic man who has escaped from the local asylum where he's been incarcerated. And the only possible witness to the crime is a disturbed teenage boy, whose hobby is killing crows with his bow and arrow. As Sejer works his way through the meager clues that are available, his work is complicated by the attitudes of many of the inhabitants of the small town where the killing took place. Despite that, Sejer comes to believe that the perpetrator of another crime--this one a bank robbery and hostage taking--is also somehow involved in the murder. Fossum explores not only the psyches of these three wounded souls, but also delves into Sejer's inner life, revealing a lonely, no-longer-young cop, who is still grieving over the death of his wife. Readers looking for a dark and moody psychological thriller, à la Henning Mankell, will definitely want to check this out. And if you enjoy this as much as I did, don't miss Fossum's newest, The Water's Edge.

The Caveman's Valentine - by George Dawes Green
Although he went on to write two nicely reviewed novels, including The Juror and the just published Ravens, I found the latter two to be a bit too scary for my taste. So if you want an exciting mystery and well-developed characters, but nothing absolutely too awful to bear to happen, take a look at George Dawes Green's very first novel, The Caveman's Valentine, published way back in 1994. Romulus Ledbetter, the caveman of the title, is a Juilliard-trained classical pianist. He's also homeless and a paranoid schizophrenic. (He would say that he isn't, technically, homeless, since he lives in a cave in Manhattan's Linwood Park.) In the time that isn't taken up with searching for food in dumpsters, Romulus spends waging war against the sinister Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant, whom Rom believes is beaming down ultra dangerous Y rays from the Chrysler Building. These rays are the direct cause of all the ills facing humankind, and Rom is convinced he must find Stuyvesant and stop him. He's diverted from his quest because one Valentine's Day morning, Romulus finds a dead body lying in front of his cave. Driven to find the murderer, he must reconnect with the world he'd long ago left behind, all the while coping (or not) with his schizophrenia, his hatred of Stuyvesant, and the "civilized" world.

The Skull Mantra - by Eliot Pattison
I've never stopped suggesting Eliot Pattison's first thriller, The Skull Mantra, to mystery fans. It won a well-deserved Edgar award for Best First Novel when it was published in 1999. In his first novel, Pattison introduced Shan Tao Yun, who has been sent from his job as the Inspector General of the Ministry of Economy in Beijing to a forced labor camp in Tibet, where his fellow prisoners include Tibetan monks and other dissidents. Then a local Chinese official is discovered--headless--near the road construction project Shan has been assigned to. The Chinese colonel who assigns Shan the case bribes him by offering more food and better living conditions, but it's also clear that he expects the murder to be blamed on a specific monk. As we follow Shan in his attempts to remain true to his conscience, appease the Colonel, survive inhumane conditions, and finally solve a complex mystery, we are introduced to a singular and singularly beautiful country, its people, and its customs. I've seldom read a novel that more effectively captures the soul of its setting, in all of its contradictions, difficulties, and beauty. The real hero of this novel is Tibet during its ongoing struggle for freedom from China.

The Unknown Soldier - by Gerald Seymour
Gerald Seymour's exciting, indeed, almost irresistible The Unknown Soldier moves the spy novel ever more decisively in the direction it's been going--no more bad Russians, good-bye le Carré's Karla, and hello terrorists. In Seymour's case, the search for a suspected terrorist, a detainee mistakenly released from prison on Guantanamo, takes place in the Empty Quarter of the Saudi Arabian desert, a place so alien, foreign, and inherently dangerous that only the Bedouin tribesmen can exist there. But American and British agents believe that a member of Al-Qaeda is crossing the sands with a load of Stinger missiles and the murder of Westerners on his mind. Can all that superior American technology locate him in the empty vastness of the Rub' al Khali, as the desert area is known? Like all good spy novels, this raises important ancillary issues: do two wrongs ever make a right? Is murder justified in the name of patriotism? Is it ever right to betray your country? Seymour's characters are three-dimensional, the plot moves along smartly (great for an airplane trip), and the politics are enlightening. (Another novel with the Rub' al Khali as its setting is Josephine Tey's The Singing Sands, one of my favorites of her Inspector Alan Grant mysteries--see below for another one of my favorite Tey novels.)

Stitches: A Memoir - by David Small
To that shortish list of great memoirs using the format of the graphic novel (Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, Alison Bechdel's Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, and Craig Thompson's Blankets), we can now add David Small's Stitches: A Memoir. Readers with young children will likely recognize the name David Small as the illustrator of books such as The Gardener and The Library (both in collaboration with his wife, writer Sarah Stewart). But Stitches is a whole new ballgame for Small: it's a wrenching tale of his 1950s childhood, raised by uncaring, unloving, and indeed, seemingly deliberately malicious parents who never had his best interests in mind. It begins when David was six, and follows him into adulthood, highlighting various events along the way, including an encounter with his mother's mother (she's like a wicked grandmother in a particularly grim Grimm fairy tale), his bout of cancer when he was eleven (terribly mishandled by his parents, despite the fact that his father was a physician), his hospital stay at fourteen, and much more. The pictures are all in shades of gray, which speak beautifully to the lack of color and happiness that marked Small's childhood and adolescence. For me, the stitches of the title refer not to the physical representations of his surgery, but rather the emotional stitching--the mending, if you will--of all the damage he suffered in his early years, and the choice he made to become as unlike his parents and grandmother as possible. Heartbreaking and hopeful, all at the same time--this is a book that both teens and adults can read and appreciate.

When You Reach Me - by Rebecca Stead
Some extraordinary teen fiction has been published recently (E. Lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, for one), and now we have an equally outstanding novel for middle grade readers: Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me. If this doesn't win the Newbery Award, which is awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, "to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children," and/or end up high on every critic's best of the year list, I'll be shocked. It's that good. Stead's book is one of those all-too-few-and-far-between novels that you want to reread as soon as you finish it, because you want to be able to see how the author so successfully accomplished all that she set out to do, which is write a fantasy that feels completely real. In 1979, 12-year-old Miranda and her best friend Sal are savvy New York kids. They know what's safe to do, what places to avoid, and how to deal with the strange and bothersome homeless man on the corner of their street. But when Sal gets attacked--for no discernible reason--by one of their classmates, it's only the first in a series of disturbing events: Miranda's apartment key--carefully hidden--disappears, and she gets the first of a series of disturbing and mysterious notes, all of which have something to do with future events. This first one includes these lines: "I am coming to save your friend's life, and my own." Even as Miranda tries to figure out what's going on, she has to deal with the realities of day-to-life--her crush on her classmate, Colin, her new friendship with Annemarie, and her dislike of Annemarie's former best friend, Julie. Then there's helping her mother, who is practicing to be a contestant on the television show The $20,000.00 Pyramid, fulfill her dream of winning. All these diverse plot lines come together in a most satisfactory way. Somehow I missed Stead's glowingly reviewed first novel, First Light, but I intend to remedy that situation shortly. Best of all, in addition to its thought-provoking plot and its realistic depiction of pre-teen experiences, When You Reach Me is a wonderful homage to Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, which is Miranda's favorite book.

Brat Farrar - by Josephine Tey
If I had to choose a favorite mystery novel, I think I'd pick Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar. I have now read Brat Farrar so many times that I've had to replace several worn out copies. I've always heard that Tey--who published little more than a handful of novels between 1927 and 1952--had trouble coming up with plots, so she frequently borrowed stories she had read in newspapers and composed a novel based loosely around details of the plots. (This is certainly the case with The Franchise Affair, which happens to be possibly my second all time favorite mystery novel.) A brief outline of Brat Farrar certainly reveals a familiar plot: a young man masquerades as the heir to a fortune and nearly gets away with it. But Tey turns this summary on its head and the result is an emotionally satisfying novel that answers less who-done-it than how-and-why it was done. The title character, Brat Farrar, returns to England after spending many years in Canada working as a ranch hand. He is sitting peacefully in a restaurant one day when a total stranger comes up to him, addresses him as Simon, and asks him how come he's able to lounge around London when his 21st birthday is rapidly approaching (which means that as eldest son he'll come into a not-inconsiderable inheritance): shouldn't he be home helping with the plans for the gala occasion? At first Brat is merely surprised at being mistaken for Simon Ashby, heir to Latchetts, an English country estate devoted to horse breeding, then he's intrigued when the stranger comes up with an apparently perfect plan, one with a big financial payoff for both men. Brat will simply pretend that he's Patrick, the first-born twin and therefore the rightful heir. But Patrick disappeared when he was about 13, and has long been presumed dead. Brat, as Patrick, will return to the family, collect his inheritance, split it with the stranger, who turns out to be a close family friend of the Ashby's, and then disappear again. After some intensive coaching, Brat infiltrates himself into the life of the Ashby family, only to discover that things are seldom what they seem, and an easy con turns potentially deadly.